Here is Bellamont Forest, County Cavan which can lay claim to being the most beautiful house in Ireland. Certainly its situation is unparalleled, since the building sits on a rise at the end of a mile-long drive, the ground to either side dropping to lakes, the world beyond screened by dense woodland. Bellamont is an unexpected delight, hidden from view until one rounds the last turn of the drive and sees the house ahead.
In purest Palladian style and looking like a villa in the Veneto, Bellamont is believed to have been designed c.1725-30 by the pre-eminent architect then working in Ireland, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce who was also responsible for the Houses of Parliament in Dublin (now the Bank of Ireland), and a number of since-lost country houses such as Desart Court, County Kilkenny and Summerhill, County Meath. Pearce was a cousin of Bellamont’s builder Thomas Coote, a Lord Justice of the King’s Bench. The Cootes had come to Ireland at the start of the 17th century and prospered so well that within 100 years their various descendants owned estates throughout the country. Ballyfin, County Laois which has recently undergone a superlative restoration was another Coote property.
The appeal of Bellamont lies in its exquisite simplicity, beginning with an exterior which is of mellow red brick with stone window dressings. Of two storeys over a raised rusticated basement, the front is dominated by a full-height limestone portico reached by a broad flight of steps. The imposing effect is achieved by the most effortless means and using the plainest materials, but there can be no doubt that Bellamont was always intended to impress. The Portland stone-flagged entrance hall, with its coved ceiling and pairs of flanking doors, sets the tone for what is follow.
While there are small rooms immediately to right and left, the latter traditionally used as a cosy winter library, the main reception areas lie to the rear of the building, a sequence of drawing room, saloon and dining room which retain their 18th century decoration including the chimneypieces. The first of these is believed to have once been a series of rooms, but following a fire in 1760 acquired its present form including the elaborate recessed ceiling which was probably intended to complement that in the dining room on the other side of the saloon. The walls of this central room contain contain stucco panels once filled with family portraits, the best-known of which – painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773 and showing the Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont resplendent in his robes as a Knight of Bath – now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.
The aforementioned Earldom of Bellamont was a second creation of the title for a member of the family. Evidently an ostentatious and pompous man – seemingly he insisted on making his maiden speech in the House of Lords in French, to the bemusement of his fellow peers – Lord Bellamont can at least be credited with having the good taste to enhance the house built by his grandfather. He married a daughter of the first Duke of Leinster and by her had four daughters and just one son who died in Toulouse at the age of 12, his body being brought back to Bellamont to lie for three days on the upper landing before burial in the family vault.
As a result of there being no legitimate heir, the earldom again lapsed on Lord Bellamont’s death in 1800. However, despite being seriously wounded in the groin during a duel with Lord Townshend, he managed to have at least 16 offsring out of wedlock by four different women, and one of these sons, also called Charles Coote, inherited Bellamont Forest. Ultimately it was sold out of the family in the middle of the 19th century and bought by the Smiths (later Dorman-Smiths), one of whom Major-General Eric Dorman-Smith served in the British army during both the First and Second World Wars after which, having changed his surname to O’Gowan, he became involved with the IRA.
In 1987 Bellamont Forest was bought by John Coote, an Australian interior designer whose family had emigrated from Ireland at the start of the last century. John dearly loved the house and undertook to restore it to a pristine condition, keeping the decoration spare so that the beauty of the rooms’ architecture would be more apparent. There was never a great deal of furniture, just a few large pieces he had specifically made and which were inspired by Georgian workmanship. In revealing the building’s purity he not only demonstrated the splendid taste of Pearce but his own also, since it would have been tempting to intervene in the interiors.
Those interiors served wonderfully for entertaining, which John did frequently. I have been to a great many terrific parties at Bellamont, and even hosted a few there, one of which – a birthday dinner for 30 – is thankfully uncommemorated by any photographs. But there are ample souvenirs and joyous memories of John’s own sundry social gatherings, such as the thé dansants he loved to throw, when a 16-piece orchestra would play in the saloon and Jack Leslie would demonstrate how to dance the Black Bottom. The last great party at Bellamont took place during the summer of 2009 to mark John’s 60th birthday and was spectacular even by his standards, with drinks in the lower gardens followed by dinner and dancing outdoors in the balmy air.
The following year John was obliged to put Bellamont Forest up for sale, and thereafter he rarely visited the place. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of his death, which happened unexpectedly while he was working in Indonesia. He is still sorely mourned by all of us who knew him in Ireland. Meanwhile Bellamont slumbers, awaiting a new owner who will kiss the place back to life; there is talk now of an auction in March. One prays that whoever next assumes responsibility for Bellamont will bring to the house the same flair and fun as did John Coote for so many years.
All photographs by René Kramers (http://www.reneez.com/)